History

Samuel Johnson

History

In the south transept of Westminster Abbey is the grave of Dr Samuel Johnson, lexicographer and critic. He lies just in front of Shakespeare’s memorial. The inscription in brass letters reads:

SAMUEL JOHNSON, LL.D Obiit XIII die Decembris Anno Domini MDCCLXXXIV Aetatis suae LXXV

which can be translated:

Samuel Johnson, Doctor of Laws, died 13 December in the year 1784, aged 75.

Above the grave is an 18th century bust by sculptor Joseph Nollekens, which was presented to the Abbey in 1939 by G.H.Tite. It just has the name JOHNSON at the base. In 1790 the Dean and Chapter had given permission for the erection of a monument to Johnson but this was never actually put up (a statue was erected at St Paul’s cathedral in 1796 and this might have been the monument which had been intended for the Abbey).

Life

Samuel was born in Lichfield on 7 September 1709, a son of Michael Johnson and his wife Sarah. He was educated in that town and later at Oxford. After an unsuccessful attempt at being a schoolmaster he came to London to make his fortune in 1737, with his friend David Garrick (the famous actor who is buried next to him). In 1735 he married a widow, Elizabeth Porter (d.1752). After periods of poverty and ill health he made his name with essays entitled The Rambler and published his great Dictionary of the English Language in 1755. One of his last great works was The Lives of the Poets. He died on 13 December 1784 aged 75. A wreath is laid on his grave each year on the anniversary of his death.

Photos of the bust and gravestone can be purchased from the Westminster Abbey Library.

 Further reading:

Oxford Dictionary of National Biography 2004

"Samuel Johnson" by John Wain, 1994

See also the websites of Dr Johnson’s House Museum in London and the Johnson Society of London.

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Johnson's memorial bust